Your brain is a constant meaning maker. It takes a stimulus and attaches to it the nearest narrative it can grab hold of. The problem is that your brain’s fastest association with a feeling, urge or idea isn’t necessarily the most helpful or accurate.
For example, every so often I become exceptionally preoccupied with rescuing another animal. This impulse usually comes when life is bursting at the seams, and so as much as I feel compelled to go to the animal shelter, I try to resist. I’ve come to realize that this sense of urgency will pass with time but it wasn’t until this weekend that I realized why it happens in the first place.
When I feel the call to care-take during chapters of stress, it seems my brain most often interprets that urge as the desire to care-take for another. The drive to act on love for others is a neurological pathway well developed over the course of my life, so my brain quickly links “care-take” with “another” and off to the shelter I am inclined to go. However, when I stopped to reconsider what might more appropriately be motivating that feeling, I realized the urge to care-take when I feel depleted is meant to be a call to take care of MYSELF, not someone or something else. Since consciousness about self-care hasn’t been practiced as often as other-care, my brain hadn’t been trained to make that interpretation as readily.
Even though loving and connecting with others is healthy and fulfilling, it was worth slowing down to realize that some of the energy I was eager to give away needed to be given to myself.
I see inaccurate associations between feelings and meaning every day in my practice, ultimately trapping people in old stories and patterns. As a consciously growing and evolving person, you’re bound to have new ideas and experiences your brain doesn’t yet have the programming to interpret. Vigilantly challenge narratives written that may no longer hold value.
What if we trusted life enough to let it surprise us? What if we believed in ourselves enough to be fluid in evolving and adapting? What if we released our assumptions about what should be and more often celebrated the miracle of what is?
These past several days the notion of “surrender” keeps presenting itself—in guided meditations “randomly” chosen, in newsletters from people I admire, and in an email from a dear soul making sure I knew about Michael Singer’s latest book (even if it’s a couple years old).
Singer’s “The Surrender Experiment” artfully unravels the ways in which our fear-based thinking arbitrarily preconceives what is safe, what is acceptable, and what is a life we can relax into living. And as is the case with virtually all our defenses, these efforts to protect our tender egos end up causing needless suffering and hold us back from our greatest potentials.
Each call to surrender—surrender—surrender echoing through my week compels me to relax deeper and deeper into the flow of life. This repetitive messaging, often referred to as synchronicity, is one aspect of the magic of life I’m most intrigued by. When I’m aware enough to notice it happening, it tends to bring both clarity and peace of mind.
Watch for subtle (or not so subtle) synchronistic calls for your attention. I find they usually hold timely and pertinent information to help break free from the limited perspective, or “plans”, our fear-based narratives cling to so dearly.
Words and language have always caught my attention more than just about anything else. They’re the total package: engaging, inspiring, hysterical, seductive, challenging, mysterious, intimate… you name it, words—written and spoken—are the pathway to everything that matters most to me. It took until adulthood to recognize how deeply and for how long I’d been in love with language, as if it was my idealized other, my soulmate of sorts.
From savoring reading, to writing poetry for fun as a child, to passing notes in school that were the equivalent of short stories, to enthralling myself in the craft and challenge of policy debate in high school and college… my passion for the study and art of communication has been interwoven throughout my life.
Quenching this desire was easy in my first decades, because reading and writing were part and parcel of school life, inherently built into each weekday. You’re practically forced do it, or at least us rule followers thought we were, and I was thrilled about it. Once graduate school was finished though, my roles as therapist and mother took center stage, and my relationship to reading and writing became a luxury I didn’t think I could afford.
I’d read after paperwork was done, the house was put back together, and the kids were in bed; I’d journal approximately once every 2-3 years when my soul was screaming at me to wake up; or on occasion I’d be asked to write an article or interview for a magazine. Whenever I’d engage with one of these, in particular writing, I’d come alive in a way that felt indescribable. My entire being felt electric, as if I’d caught the eye of my secret, beloved crush and the heartthrob winked back at me.
Given that I treasured something so considerably, and it made me feel so deeply alive, you’d presume that I would’ve dedicated some real time and energy to this relationship, right? No. Nope. Not at all. Not even kind of. Honestly, I’d estimate I engaged in meaningful writing less than an hour total each year. It seems absurd, but let’s get real, how often do you find yourself doing that thing that feels amazing, and then proceed to NOT prioritize doing it again for ages?
This happens for many reasons, but mostly it’s that we’re scared of what it would mean to allow ourselves the power that comes with connecting to that which sets our souls on fire. What would we do? How would we want to change our lives? Who would we become? What would people think? Would we be betraying everyone else who wasn’t feeling so viscerally alive? Would people see us as being selfish? Would they accuse of being foolish, reckless or irresponsible?
Thankfully I’m surrounded by a tribe of people who don’t let each other fall for this playing small and “safe” nonsense. As my longing to write grew stronger and stronger, they encouraged me to get serious about it again and again, and so it was one night over wine in my living room with my closest girlfriends that we started to dial in on the concept for a writing project we named “Dearest You and Me.” We hastily secured the social media pages and celebrated our triumph!
Yes! Finally! It was so exciting! Something was happening!!!
We do this a lot. We become overly fixated on the first and final step in any journey to the extent that we grossly disregard most of what comes in-between. None of the in-between seems particularly knowable or glamorous enough, so we either avoid or minimize its role. However, the reality is that we live the vast majority of our lives in the in-between steps. By definition the first step only comes once and by the time we arrive at the imagined final step we are usually too preoccupied with the next last step, goal or milestone to even notice.
And so there I was, alone in the light of the next day, paralyzed by the fear of stepping into my passion, and of doing the next thing “wrong”. I felt totally lost.
Fearful narratives in my head were loud and persistent. Who did I think I was believing that writing was worth my time? There were so many other things I could be doing—things that I knew how to do well and things that I knew would yield results I felt decent about (you know, like cleaning the house and mastering my to-do lists). Did I have anything worth saying? Would it ever come together and be meaningful? What would people think? Would they judge me? Would they criticize me? Could I handle that? I’m an immensely sensitive and private person. Being vulnerable in my sacred inner circle was one thing, but could I survive holding my real thoughts out in the public eye? Honestly, it felt like if I exposed my voice to the world I might just disintegrate into a million pieces.
It seemed entirely dangerous, and so my fear-based ego was grateful it had countless outs. After all, there’s infinite other busyness of life to attend to and distract myself with… So it sat and sat and sat doing absolutely nothing for about another six months until my husband started nudging me again. We began brainstorming concepts and ideas, but the perfectionist in me didn’t want to put anything out into the world until I knew exactly what it would be and had it polished and shined to the point of feeling absolutely confident in myself.
How many times do we use that excuse to not step into the unknown? Yet here’s the vital and uncomfortable truth: We don’t ever feel confident about doing something until AFTER it’s already done. My habit of playing small was going to have a fit over putting myself out into the world no matter how “perfect” the work was, because confidence can’t ever come before stepping out of our zone of familiarity. Confidence only comes once we’ve seen it’s all worked okay or that even if it allegedly didn’t, we survived it all the same. Waiting for anxiety to wane before doing something is a trap that binds us to our limiting beliefs and status quos. It’s not until we become brave enough to feel all that fear and proceed anyways that things begin to happen and fear-based narratives start acquiescing to rewriting themselves, “Oh yeah, that. We knew you could do that. It wasn’t even a big deal really. Anyone could that. What you really CAN’T do is [insert next new thing here].”
Hands shaking and heart racing, I asked writing if we could have some time together, an initial meet-and-greet of sorts in this new relationship I tentatively hoped to forge. The first card and picture was composed and sent out into the world. I could pick apart all the things I don’t love about that post (there are many), but what mattered was that I STARTED. Even without being confident, even without a plan, even with the terror of being seen—I started.
I committed to meeting my creative process regularly. At minimum, I set out to write and publish five days a week. Given my love of letter writing, the project was formed around the concept of love letters from the soul to the human personality. It sought to inspire a more open and conscious connection to the love-based, intuitive consciousness that gets clouded and drowned out by the persistently loud chatter of the fear-based human ego. The letters were handwritten on note cards, composed into photographs, and then in time started including longer narrative attachments.
The concept of Dearest You and Me seemed relatively simple in theory, but the process behind each piece was surprisingly time consuming. Since I savored the time I had with writing, these “dates” together were incredible, but finding the time and energy to get to know each other better was increasingly challenging.
I was filled with enthusiasm for the project but simultaneously already had a life bursting with more opportunities and obligations of my time than I could manage. Two phenomenal and active children, a marriage, dogs, a cat, a more than full private practice, an ever-lengthening waiting list, my husband leaving his job to start his private law practice, designing and building out a new office space, and on and on and on. It became clear that if I was going to commit to writing that the time and energy for it would have to come at the expense of something else.
To get serious with writing, it had to occupy the prime real estate of my day—not be relegated to whatever was left over. I promised myself that I would scale back my practice and block off time in my schedule exclusively for writing. It would be difficult to do it all in the beginning until the changes from seeing fewer clients took effect in my work schedule, but I was sure that soon enough writing and I could have quality time integrated into my regular Monday through Friday.
It appeared to be a reasonable plan, and I was relieved to be prioritizing something that was important to ME alongside my other responsibilities. With a healthy share of both optimism and good intentions, writing and I started going steady. However, like most new couples we hit some rough patches, and I discovered I had some tough lessons yet to learn.
Lifelong Learnable No. 1: Most of the Struggle is in Your Head
In the beginning it felt so hard to make time for doing the project. There was near constant angst and debating: Do I do it now? Do I do it here? Do I love this? Is this imposing too much on family time? Is this a good use of my time? Is this worth it? Does it even matter? Is anyone even reading this stuff? Am I foolish to be investing my limited time and energy into something that has no clear path, course, or end game?
Around and around and around I would go in my head each week, but I just kept writing and doing the project ANYWAYS. Without any answers, without any clear means of assessing its worth or value, I kept coming back to the fact that I’d wanted to make writing part of my life for as long as I could remember. I knew in my heart that if I betrayed this effort by quitting on it before it really even started, I would jeopardize my likelihood to ever start again (because I can be dramatic like that).
Eventually I got a handle on this obsessive banging of my head on the wall by getting clear about committing to the project for a year. My mantra became “One year. I will do this for one year and then (and only then) can I assess how I feel about it.” There were days I had to remind myself of the trusty mantra a dozen times, but over time I didn’t need it all. I stopped debating whether-or-not-to or how-or-when-to less and less. Soon writing and the project were just part of life, no different than anything else that happened in the week. It was always a puzzle to get everything to fit, but writing no longer warranted any more skepticism than anything else that was to get done.
That’s when I realized that so much of why starting new things seems hard is simply because of the mental run around we give ourselves. The actual practice of integrating the things you love into your life isn’t nearly as challenging as overcoming the limiting beliefs you have about your worthiness to prioritize what you love above all the other things you’re told you’re supposed todo like being productive, making money, or taking care of others before yourself.
Lifelong Learnable No. 2: Prioritizing: Easier Said than Done (Allegedly)
Despite my intention of integrating writing into my work hours, nothing really changed with my private practice schedule. The good and bad of doing work you love is that it’s one thing to look at the big picture and consider making changes, but it’s quite another to sit in front of it and follow through on setting limits. It’s much easier to imagine saying no than it is to actually confront the status quo in real time and hold fast to saying, “As much as I love to do this, I have to say no to it right now to make room for saying yes to something new.” I didn’t hold sacred time in the day for writing, and my practice inevitably filled up as much of the week as it always had.
While life continued rolling itself out, independent of my plans and intentions, I kept telling myself it was all under control (despite failing to take meaningful control of much of anything related to my time and energy). As the project became more integrated into my life without the constant mental wrestling—Dearest You and Me and I were doing this thing no matter what—there was a false sense of relief. I mistakenly believed that I could do all the things at the same time, without any sacrifices or negative consequences.
By not truly prioritizing my intentions, my commitment to writing ended up coming at the cost of the most restorative things in my life. Initially the project took up the bulk of the weekends, but soon it became clear it was consuming too much precious family and couple time. Not wanting my most important relationships to suffer at the hands of my dream, I cut back on the weekends and started writing in the left-over minutes of the day, usually after the kids were in bed (remember how I promised myself I wouldn’t do this very thing?). Of course that interfered with other important self-care like actually relaxing for a hot minute or having any opportunity to get to bed on time (whatever that is).
As much as I hate to admit it, there’s no way around the fact that pushing ourselves to do all the things without confronting our discomforts about setting limits or asking for sacrifices from anyone else means the sacrifices come exclusively at the cost of ourselves, which is a trap we so easily fall into as parents, partners, overachievers, perfectionists, women… humans.
Burn out started to take hold by the fall, which brought me my most surprising ah-ha of it all:
Lifelong Learnable No. 3: You Can’t Lie, Cheat or Fake Your Authentic, Soulful Creative Process
So much of life can be done on autopilot. You know this. It doesn’t seem to matter how stressed, depleted or under rested we are, we are warriors and will still manage to get up, truck through the day, navigate the to-dos, and care take for others.
The first (and maybe only) thing I couldn’t do when I was spent was write. I mean sure, I could have put some stuff together and put it out into the world, but I couldn’t open up the real connection—the energetic channel that runs through the top of my head and out through my heart center. It was closed. For real. The more exhausted I became, the more solidly shut that door felt.
While I could have panicked about this discovery, I mostly felt profound respect. Finally, there was a true barometer for how well I was taking care of honoring myself. The writing process had become a communion with my soul, and it was as if she was saying, “No, I am not going to collude with this nonsense of running yourself into the ground. You get serious about taking care of you, and I’ll be here waiting. We can write more when you demonstrate that you are truly ready.”
I had to face the inevitable truth: My relationship with writing couldn’t be healthy if I kept trying to sneak it in on the side. It was time for a serious commitment, or I was going to annihilate us.
Moving In Together
Keep in mind that I’ve been in the business of helping people through relationships for well over a decade, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise to me that commitment in my relationship with writing had to be about more than just showing up. Effective commitment is just as much, if not more, about how you show up, when you show up, what responsibility you take for your part, and how you treat one another. The shelf-life on casual dating and late night calls for company had long since expired for writing and me, and quite frankly we both deserved better than I let us have last year.
I’m not entirely sure how the Dearest You and Me writing project will evolve next. I thought I’d have a better road map for that by the time I got to January, but if nothing else, I’ve learned that any journey is primarily about the willingness to see it through. As long as I engage wholeheartedly, somehow the creative process co-creates the way with me.
Of course this is also the trickiest part—in order to allow ourselves to meaningfully commit to any kind of relationship, we have to believe that we’re worthy of having it in the first place. Including believing that someone or something could find us worthy of collaborating and building with. Believing that we are the people who could take the risk of stepping into the unknown, with no defined path, course, or end result. Believing we deserve to invest our hearts into something independent of what it costs, how much it gives back, or what anyone else thinks about it.
Which is the crux of the struggle I’ve wrestled with nearly my whole life: the assumption that something else, anything or everything else, is more important than this thing that is important to me. It took nearly the entire year to start to believe that I could give myself permission to do something that as far as I know, may only having meaning to me, benefiting my relationship to myself and my experience of life.
This next year is going to be about confronting my fear of saying yes to writing at the expense of saying no to other work, and holding the discomfort of not knowing how that will turn out or whether I can tolerate my lonely, fearful narratives about exposure and failure.
I am going to feel the anxiety that tries to bind me up and the shame that taunts me and keep going anyways. I am going to talk about my love and commitment to writing openly, allowing it to be front and center with all the other things I do. I am going to close the door to other competing interests. I am going to demonstrate again and again that this relationship is worth risking my vulnerability and that I am grateful for the opportunity, even though as in all relationships, I have no idea where we’ll end up or if I’ll be left broken hearted.
Questions haunt me like they do on the precipice of commitment to most relationships: Am I moving too quickly? Have I said too much? Will the risk and investment be worth it? Will my friends and family approve? Will I regret giving up what I already have, what I already know, to step into this uncharted territory? How much influence will I allow this to have on my life course? How much do I dare expose and reveal of myself?
I am second guessing myself at each turn and insecurities, old and new, are clamoring for center stage, but that’s the tricky business about relationships and life—the only way to fall in love and see what is truly possible is to take the leap despite your ego begging you to stay “safe”.
I see my fear. I see my anxieties. I see my insecurities. And still I wholeheartedly give writing the key to my house, to my life, and am brazenly telling the world about it. There’s nowhere for me to hide any more. Any window of opportunity to pretend I never tried to make a lifelong relationship with writing has closed.